Longing For Paris Trains, 
Cramped Showers And Sore Feet
 

Celia Jones
 

© Copyright 2003 by Celia Jones

Photo of a Paris street.

I have never witnessed a longer sunrise, or a longer day. From the plane, we followed the sun backwards in time towards our ultimate destination for the first leg of the trip--Paris. The neat, regular layers of colour on the horizon of red, orange and yellow resembled a child’s colouring of a setting sun. It was a relief to be on the way after a solid week of preparations dominated by to-do lists designed to give one the illusion that you could still control everything on the Australian home front though you will be 12,000 miles away for five weeks.

We were travelling Thai Air via Bangkok to Paris; after a three-night stay in Paris we were to fly to London and explore England and Wales by hire car. Then, after two weeks, my husband Allan and I were to fly from London to Dulles (Washington, DC) Airport to stay with my brother in Maryland, where my sister and niece would join us. In the planning of our itinerary, it all seemed easy, only inches on the little map, but with all those miles ahead of us, I felt like we were facing a mammoth undertaking. Having made several long journeys back to the US, I was relatively calm with my only concern being Deep Vein Thrombosis.

It was a nine-hour journey to Bangkok, where we had a three-hour stopover, wandering from one booth to another, inspecting the fine silver and gold crafted jewellery and silky, diaphanous saris on sale. We walked for hours exploring the exotic goods jam-packed in all the little shops until it was time to again board the plane for Paris. Even looking at the word—Paris--on the departure screen made me shiver. My last trip to Paris was when I was a callow 19-year old embarking on a solo European adventure. There is a lifetime between the gutsy teenager asserting her independence from her parents and the middle-aged, retired grandmother I am now.

Even the 12 more hours of physical torture cramped in an economy seat, where it was a struggle to wedge yourself out to go to the toilet, couldn’t dampen my excitement at beginning our overseas holiday. On our way, we passed over Poland, my parents’ birthplace, and all the ‘stan countries’ (i.e.Uzbekestan, Tajikstan, Kazakstan, perhaps Afghanistan) which appeared like tiny points of light. I imagined the peasants below rising with the dawn in their little houses, eating hearty bowls of porridge and pork in preparation for a laborious day in the frost-encrusted fields, while we were cocooned and overheated in our metal, hermetically sealed cylinder. Our breakfast-- poached eggs and a sausage--resembled the plastic food display of a Japanese restaurant, and tasted exactly how it looked.

Finally, we were flying over France, which seemed to have endless green countryside broken at irregular intervals by villages of uniformly regular stone cottages before we finally approached the more populated areas near Paris.

Landing at the Charles de Gaulle airport was certainly different from my first entry as a teenager into Paris by train from Brussels. The airport was ultra-modern with a maze of criss-crossing glass tubes of moving walkways. After claiming our bags, I needed to find a toilet. Anxious to try out my French, I asked several airport employees, who all gave the same answer: “la-bas” (over there) gesturing upwards towards nowhere in particular. I headed in one direction without success, so I asked another worker who also said “la-bas” and pointed in the opposite direction. Getting desperate, I luckily finally spotted a line of people waiting outside a small toilet

Our next task was to find the shuttle bus we’d arranged to take us to our hotel in Paris. No thanks to the airport employees who seemed reluctant to give out any information, we stumbled on the general area for the bus pickups. I approached a white-haired, dishevelled gentleman in a crumpled grey suit sitting dispiritedly at a counter. When I started to ask him in English about the city shuttle bus, he raised an angry bloodshot eye and growled, “Oh, la!” “What’s your problem?” I growled back, irritable from the journey and determined to not be intimidated by this Gallic version of Basil Fawlty, an abusive hotel manager from a 70’s English comedy series.

He then grunted that I should speak English more “slooowly”. I ferreted around the mental back lots of my memory of university French to find the vocabulary to ask where the particular bus company was. He gestured in the air again, “La-bas”, pointing vaguely in the direction of a lady watching us at the next counter. She spoke English and seemed nice enough when she told us to wait a few minutes while she rang the driver and pointed to some plastic chairs “la-bas.” Fifteen minutes later, our bus driver, a French Algerian, ran into the terminal and started yelling at us, “Come on, hurry!!” We grabbed our things and followed him to his van, where he picked up our bags and threw them into the back. Then he nearly picked us up and threw us into the back seat of the van with more “Hurry, come ons!!” Before we could get our belts on, we were thrown back in our seats as he screeched off and travelled at a breathtaking speed until he reached the outskirts of the city, where he abruptly slammed on the brakes, stopping in the middle of the street, either to ask directions or run a personal errand. Bewildered, without a word of explanation, we sat waiting in the van wondering if this slummy area was the location of our hotel.

However, the bus driver from “Nightmare on Elm Street” returned, and we proceeded into the heart of Paris until we reached our little hotel near La Place de la Republique. We chose the hotel for its name—Hotel Hibiscus—which suggested a delicate tropical flower. However, we soon realized the reality was far from this as we hauled our bags into the musty-smelling, storefront-sized lobby. A couple of old plastic chairs were placed in front of an antique television that was blaring away for no-one’s benefit. A large black woman was cleaning up in a small kitchen alcove next to a tiny dining area that was used for serving the traditional Continental French breakfast of fresh croissants and café au lait. The receptionist appeared from the shadows, and I rattled off the French phrase I’d rehearsed about our room reservation. It was fairly warm and sunny, and we couldn’t wait to have a shower and a bit of a rest before exploring my favourite city, but the receptionist told us in no uncertain terms that we could not get into our room until 2.30pm, well, 2pm the earliest. It didn’t matter that it was only 10am, and we had been travelling over 30 hours, felt grimy and had swollen feet. He said we could leave our bags behind the counter. I asked him about nearby attractions, but he was rather terse in his response, “Mais, oui, zere are a lot of zings to zee in Paree,” pointing perfunctorily to the rack of maps and brochures of Paris next to the door. It was clear he didn’t feel it was his place to take on the role of tour guide.

With only two full days in Paris, we thought we’d better make an energetic start at experiencing the romantic, unique charms the city had to offer. Despite swollen feet, we set off enthusiastically into the deserted Sunday morning streets in what we thought was the general direction of the river Seine. Undoubtedly, we took the longest circular route as my feet started to blister. The streets were coming alive with more strollers and tourists as we walked through the Tuilleries and Luxembourg Gardens. Not far from the Louvre were two giant Ferris wheels, which featured in the film “Moulin Rouge.” There were so many of the well-known landmarks, bateaux mouches (tourist boats) statues and old bridges that I felt like I was in a Disney re-creation of Paris. It didn’t seem possible that one city could have preserved so many elegant old buildings. The Palais Royale that King Louis XIV converted into the Louvre had been modernized by the addition of a glass pyramid entrance, which seemed totally incongruous in the courtyard of this mid 16th C. as a royal palace.

As pedestrians approaching the city centre, we felt vulnerable in the midst of the building traffic. Mopeds, scooters, bicyclists without helmets, motorcycles, trucks, buses, cars converged into intersections from nine different roads, then careered around statues like the Place de la Republique at breakneck speed. Cars parked anyway, anywhere--on corners, over pedestrian crossings, halfway across streets--so close together that you’d swear you needed a can opener to get in or out of the parking spaces. We thought we’d escape into the underground Metro, but the multitude of signs, arrows and railway abbreviations for the three rail companies--the M, the RER and the T—rendered us hopelessly confused. Exhausted after a couple of hours, we went back to the hotel to see if they’d allow us into our room.

This time, there was a woman, the owner, at the counter. I explained to her in French that we had booked a room, and we gave the voucher to the receptionist when we came earlier. She insisted she had no voucher, and we would have to pay if we wanted the room. There was a lot of aggravated debate before she checked the records to verify what we had been trying to tell her. Our room was up on the third floor. There was an elevator, but to get to it, we had to drag our bags up a spiral staircase to the first floor. It was a struggle trying to wedge ourselves and cases into the lift the size of a broom cupboard. When the ancient lift lurched to a stop on the third floor, there was another poorly-lit spiral staircase to climb up to our room. Miraculously, we made it to our door without breaking any legs. After struggling with the key for ages, I entered first and promptly fell face down on the bed which monopolized the whole room. The bathroom was a real ‘elbow cracker’, and when you sat on the toilet, there wasn’t enough room to close the door.

But the best part of this $AUD220 per night room was to come—the shower!! Allan, my husband, opted to shower first while I remained collapsed on the bed. Though I heard grunting coming from the bathroom, I thought they were sounds of pleasure at his finally getting to shower off the grime of the past 48 hours. When he came out of the shower, in his usually understated English fashion, he said “Well, that was an interesting experience.”

“What do you mean?”

He told me the saga of how both taps fell off when he started the shower, leaving two pointy pipes sticking out, which pierced his skin when he bent down to pick the taps up, causing him to slip on the floor. Since this shower could win the Guinness Book of Records for the narrowest one in the world, he became wedged in with nothing to grab on to lift himself up. Of course, he didn’t call out for my help, (He is English, after all), and the grunting noises were from his efforts to somehow pull himself upright.

With only one day left in France, we decided to wake up early and explore the Parisian sights until dark. To save time, we took the Metro to the city centre, though we still pounded our blistered feet getting around Notre Dame Cathedral and Saint Germaine du Pres, the Sorbonne student quarter. We enjoyed an outdoor market, window-shopped the pricey boutiques in the Montmartre district and took in the beauty of the 18th Century buildings from the Pont Neuf. Hunger and rich cooking smells drew us down a narrow, cobble-stoned alleyway to a cafe, where we lunched ‘en pleine air’ (outside) amidst the colourful window boxes. We were finally starting to relax enough to appreciate the city’s charms when police cars with sirens blaring, motorcycles and ambulances exploded onto the Parisian streets, all hurrying in the same direction and leaving the many tourists frozen in their tracks. I wasn’t sure, but it looked like they were headed in the direction of the American Embassy. Curious about all the commotion, we headed back to the hotel to catch the news.

It was about three o’clock in the afternoon in Paris when we put the television on in our room and got the beginning of the CNN breaking news regarding a passenger plane crashing into the tower of the World Trade Building.  The English reporter was saying that it was a dreadful accident.  She was struggling to find the words to describe the incident and kept repeating,  “At 9 am, it is such a busy time of day for Manhattan.”  As the smoke billowed out of the top of the first tower, we saw a plane resembling a computer-animated image move jerkily across the television before exploding behind the first tower.  The reporter either didn’t look at her monitor or couldn’t believe her eyes, as she continued talking about whether or not the crash was an accident.  Stunned with disbelief, my husband and I wondered if this was some type of modern day “War of the Worlds” hoax.  Someone must have told the newswoman what had happened, because she then shakily confirmed, what we had just witnessed, that a second passenger plane had crashed into the middle of the other WTC tower.  We were riveted to the TV as more and more unbelievable events unfolded with the collapse of the Twin Towers and the news of another two hijacked planes crashing into the Pentagon and the countryside in Pennsylvania.   My psyche overwhelmed, I fell asleep watching the horrible images, fully expecting to find this a bad dream, but when I woke up, it was all still there--“a nightmare on endless loop”.  Here we were, over 12,000 miles from home with an itinerary that would take us into the heart of this hell.   I wondered if my brother living in Maryland, near Washington DC, was all right.  What would our kids and friends at home be thinking now?   Is this what war feels like--private citizens are all vulnerable and helpless, suddenly sinking into the quicksands of  uncontrolled events? We longed to be home on Australian soil, or at least to turn the clock back to a former lifetime where our concerns were of shower taps, Paris trains and sore feet.

Celia Jones earned a Bachelor of Arts with Honors at U.C., Berkeley in 1969 and immigrated to Australia in 1972, where she still lives as a retired teacher with her husband and three children. She has been published in two anthologies on Parkinson’s Disease (When Parkinson’s Strikes Early and Voices from the Parking Lot) Three other stories have been accepted in the anthologies to be published next year including Chocolate for a Woman’s Soul, Rising Above Prejudice, and Front Porch Syndicated.
 
 

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